IN 2017, THE journal Child Development published results from a study showing that young children worked more diligently at difficult tasks when dressed as Batman. Research like this can feel a little bit gimmicky, but the essential idea is easy enough to understand: Superheroes are simplified models for living, showing us what we can aspire to when we adopt their values and mindset.
There's a similar idea at play in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a Academy Award-nominated animated movie that works from the notion that anyone can be--or at least be like--Spider-Man. It's a movie that casts Spider-Man not as a specific, singular hero but as a symbol of a set of eternal values, and it's a pop-culture parable about choice, responsibility, and the power of individuals to construct their own identities.
Since his debut in 1962, the web-slinging comic book character has usually taken the form of Peter Parker, a nerdy white guy from Queens who was somewhere between a teenager and a 30-something. He split his time between the ordinary experiences of a struggling dweeb and a fantasy existence as a superhero with spider-like powers.
In one part of his life, he was a nebbish everyman who dealt with mundane problems--rocky relationships, paying the rent, a callous boss, demanding teachers. In the other part, he was a larger-than-life character in a red and blue suit who swung effortlessly through the urban canyons of Manhattan using wrist-mounted web-shooters that he built at home.
In his dual identities, Spider-Man was a stand-in for many of his readers, who tended to be young white men who felt alienated from the world and found a means of escape in superhero comics. Spider-Man was Peter Parker, a particular fictional character with a particular fictional history, but in another sense he was also you. Spider-Man collapsed the distance between character and consumer; to be a Spider-Man fan was to see yourself, at least a little bit, as Spider-Man.
Yet throughout his existence, Spider-Man has also appeared in a variety of other forms: as a clone created by a villainous biology professor; as a bearded, middle-aged post-apocalyptic survivor; as a black-suited duo, paired with a powerful alien symbiote, who eventually joined with a rival to become Spider-Man's dark nemesis, Venom. In at least one incarnation, the movie trilogy starring Tobey Maguire, his web shooters (and webs) were biological, part of his spider mutations rather than a scientific...